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Of course, software isn’t the only thing to consider. If the hardware that programs run on isn’t up to snuff, your child is bound to get frustrated. Pay attention to the following things when making your purchase.

Performance

Performance is a tricky thing to measure when comparing these devices, because they excel at different things. The iPad starts up quickly and feels very responsive, but usually isn’t employed for processor-intensive tasks, while laptops offer more processing horsepower. If your child is only going to use the web, email, and word processing, all three are about equal. For any other tasks, a laptop is faster.

Storage

Laptops pack much more storage space than an iPad. Mac laptops offer at least 500GB of hard drive space, while the Windows laptops used for this article generally sported around 750GB. The iPad, on the other hand, maxes out at 64GB. Mac and Windows programs and files tend to need more space, but even still, laptops offer a lot more storage, which means they have more room to grow.

Internet Connectivity

Internet connectivity is crucial for any student these days, and all three options here have top-notch Wi-Fi capabilities. Laptops also have ports to plug network cables into, something that iPad lacks (if there’s only a cable handy and no Wi-Fi, the iPad isn’t getting online). The iPad, on the other hand, can offer always-on wireless Internet via 3G, the same kind of connection used by smartphones. Getting an iPad with 3G is more expensive and requires a monthly data plan, but it offers Internet access virtually anywhere. Many schools have Wi-Fi for students. Check with your child’s school.

Battery Life

While battery life for all of these devices is much improved compared to a few years ago, the iPad is the clear winner. It’s not uncommon to get 10-12 hours of continuous use or a few days of intermittent use out of an iPad. Mac laptops tend to have better battery life than their Windows counterparts, clocking in at around 7 hours of use.

Use in School

This one is a bit tricky, because how technology is used in schools is still being decided. Some schools may prefer laptops, others iPads, and some may ban technology from the classroom altogether. It’s best to check with your child’s school about its policies and plan accordingly.

Screen Size

Screen size may not be a major concern for most middle schoolers, because it’s unlikely they’ll be doing much photo or video editing, page layout, or other tasks that especially benefit from large screens. That said, laptops offer bigger screens than the iPad: generally 14 or 15 inches (measured diagonally) versus the iPad’s 9.7 inches. Some people won’t care about the difference; others will appreciate the extra space.

Keyboard

This is a major factor for your middle schooler. Laptops offer physical keyboards, while the iPad only has an onscreen version (you can buy external physical keyboards, though). While the iPad’s keyboard is good for limited use, writing papers or longer documents can be difficult, while the traditional keyboards offered by laptops make writing a snap.

Printing

All three devices support various kinds of printing, but laptops make life simpler; Windows laptops especially have a broader range of choices. The iPad, on the other hand, can only work with printers that support Apple’s AirPrint technology. There are more and more of those, but if you’ve already got a printer[md]and don’t want to have to buy a new one to go with an iPad[md]chances are it doesn’t support AirPrint, and you’ll want to choose a laptop.

Flash Support

Adobe’s Flash technology (which is used for websites, web audio and video, and online games) doesn’t work on the iPad and, now that Adobe has ceased development of Flash for mobile devices, probably never will. Use of Flash is declining, but it’s still a major element of many popular websites like Hulu. Laptops are the only way to get Flash.

Cameras

It’s pretty common for gadgets to have digital cameras built into them these days. That’s true of most Windows laptops, and all Mac laptops and iPads. The iPad stands alone, though, for two reasons: maneuverability and having two cameras. The iPad has a camera on it front and back, both of which can record video and take still photos (it has two so that it can use Apple’s FaceTime video chatting software). While laptop cameras are really only good for video chats, the placement of the camera on the back of the iPad makes it a great media creation tool, easy to move around and use to take photos or videos.

Weight

Laptops generally weigh between 4.5 and 5 pounds. Contrast the relatively svelte 1.3 pounds that the iPad weighs, and it’s clear that Apple’s tablet is the most portable of these devices.

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